In October, 2019, we headed to Europe for a 4 week trip. There was only one basic goal: to go someplace completely different and see what it would be like to just “live.” Slovenia and Croatia were chosen primarily because we had been on a tour of Croatia 4 years before, so we could just do nothing there since we had already seen many of the major tourist sites.
David wanted to go to Slovenia, having traveled through there in 1973 when it was still part of Yugoslavia. We decided to split the month between Croatia & Slovenia. I had never been to Venice, though we have traveled extensively through Italy over the past 27 years. Since they are so close, we flew to Venice first and used that as our springboard to Slovenia which is right next door.
Italy had been our favorite European destination since 1993 when we first visited Italy together to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. But we found Croatia to be every bit as warm and inviting as Italy. Croatia offers the same Mediterranean climate, cuisine and fascinating Roman ruins. And we found Slovenia to be similar.
Venice is otherworldly. There’s not another place in the world like it. It is the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region and is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no roads, just canals – including the grand Canal thoroughfare – lined with Renaissance and Gothic palaces. Our small well positioned pensione was recommended in a Rick Steves guide book. He’s been our travel guru for many years. He always advises staying as close to the attractions as possible, to get the true ambiance and not waste your valuable time getting between sites. Some of our highlights were Piazza San Marco / Saint Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace, where we used our pre-purchased online tickets to walk right in to the Palace, skipping the long waiting lines to purchase tickets. There we saw the largest oil painting in the world, walked thru the bridge of sighs and took too many photos. The architecture.. Ah…. the architecture.. It’s so hard NOT to take too many photos in Europe. We of course enjoyed some fabulous pizza, seafood and lovely wines while there. The fried sardines with pickled onion.. well, they were interesting. One night we dined at Timon all’ Antica Mola and arrived in time for appetizers and 1/2 liters of the house Cabernet/Merlot blend before our delicious dinner. Just walking the city was an adventure, through the narrow streets, beautiful old buildings and canals and bridges everywhere, not sure what we would find at the next turn. The views were always photo worthy.
From Venice we headed to laid-back Ljubljana, Slovenia for a 6 night say via OptiGo Van. The van dropped us at the bus station and we walked 1.5 miles through the newer part of the city to our apartment in “Old Town.” Our apartment was located on Stari Trg (Old Square), a charming street with restaurants, coffee shops, daily fresh market etc. Living the “cafe life”… just lingering at our restaurant table with our backgammon and a good glass of beer or wine after lunch or dinner was a goal that we certainly accomplished. All our meals were tasty and reasonably priced. They ranged from pasta and pizza to fresh fish, rump steak and veal, with local wines and beers. We enjoyed all the food we tried, but really got hooked on the thin crust pizza with tomato sauce, prosciutto, mozzarella, loads of fresh arugula on top, then drizzled with olive oil.
Slovenia is smaller than the U. S. state of New Jersey. And although Ljubljana is the capital city, it’s small. In the whole city there are only about 270,000 people. We stayed in the “Old Town”, clustered around a castle-topped mountain. You could stroll the riverside promenade, explore interesting boutiques, wander through the riverside produce market, and sip coffee at sidewalk cafe’s along the river. Ljubljana is an historic city with inhabitants dating back to the Neolithic and Bronze ages. It was once a trade route connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Ljubljana became the capital of one of Europe’s youngest nations in 1991.
It is a lovely city boasting wonderful architecture, including Austrian Baroque and Viennese Art Nouveau, but with a Mediterranean flair. The Ljubljianica River bisects the city, dividing the Old Town from the city Center. To get back and forth there are 3 famous bridges known as the Cobblers, Butcher’s and the Dragon Bridges. The later was inspired by the legend that Jason and the Argonauts founded the city after slaying a dragon in a nearby marsh!
Many European cities were built on hills, with walled castles or walled cities on top. The location and walls were designed to help prevent invasions. Most of these cities have “Old Towns”, the historic or original core of the city on top, with the newer part of the city expanding below. In Ljubljana, you can either walk or take the funicular to the mountain top Ljubljana Castle overlooking the city. We chose to take the funicular up and walk down. While there we enjoyed a 360 degree view of the whole city of Ljubljana and the snow capped mountains of the Julian Alps in the distance. On the grounds we also saw an art exhibit about the atrocities of lithium mining in Bolivia. I had no idea!
Most mornings we had breakfast of fresh yogurt and muesli in our apartment while reading The Tennessean Newspaper online, then took a short walk down the street to one of the coffee shops along the river by the vegetable and flower market. We even sat under the cover of a large umbrella while it softly rained one day, just enjoying the coffee and people watching. It was not unusual to see a local senior citizen, dressed in their finest, having an espresso followed by a tall beer around 10 am. Sometimes we wandered through the open air market and bought fresh fruit and roasted nuts. The peaches we bought were some of the tastiest I have ever had! One morning at our “coffee break” we were entertained by bees in our sugar container and a group of Hari Krishna devotees singing and dancing thru the streets.
A must do day trip from Ljubljana is Lake Bled (sounds like blade). We barely made the departing bus… running for several blocks to catch it (another reason to wear good walking shoes)! The Slovenian countryside is beautiful with small manicured villages and lots of urban gardens so beautifully arranged and maintained. Upon our arrival to Lake Bled, we stopped in the Grand Hotel Toplice for cappuccino & Kremna Rezina (the famous creme cake).
After our caffeine and sugar intake we were ready for the hike around the lake. It is a scenic lake located in the city of Bled and surrounded by mountains and forests in the Julian Alps in northwestern Slovenia. The 3.5 mile hike around the lake provides lovely views of the mountains and the picturesque historic church on the island in the lake.
Another must do day trip is to one of the famous Slovenian caves. Slovenia is known to have some of the largest caves in the world and the Postojna Cave is the second longest cave system in Slovenia at 79,130 ft. It was created by the Pivka River. Graffiti inside indicates the cave was used long before the 1200’s. During World War l Russian prisoners of war were forced to construct a bridge across a large chasm inside the cave. During World War ll, German occupying forces used the cave to store nearly 1,000 barrels of aircraft fuel, which were destroyed in April 1944 by Slovene Partisans. The fire burned for seven days destroying a large section of the cave and blackening the entrance, which is still visible today. You enter the cave via train, then disembark and walk thru some amazing formations and rooms such as the Spaghetti room and the Red Room, the White Room and the Large Hall. It was definitely a World Class Experience. On our bus ride back to Ljubljana, I listened to some Rick Steves audio guides I had downloaded on my phone and learned about the Open Kitchen Event that was actually happening that night!
The Open Kitchen Event at the Central Market was fantastic! The food was presented from some of the best restaurants and chefs all over Slovenia. First we tried some Slovenian fried chicken, then Egyptian chicken Taouk. The Taouk was absolutely one of the tastiest dishes I have ever experienced.. I’m still searching for a recipe! AT this point we were stuffed, but happened by a booth selling ribs cooked with a Jack Daniels sauce. Well, since Jack Daniels hails from Tennessee, as do we, we felt like we just had to stop and introduce ourselves to the cook. He GAVE us a rib dinner and wanted our opinion. He also told us that a representative from Jack Daniels had visited last week when they were in a different city and told them this BBQ sauce using Jack Daniels was the best ever. I will say, honestly, it was GREAT!
One thing we noticed in Slovenia was that most of the women were very attractive. I don’t think I’ve seen a larger concentration of attractive women in one place in my life. They also seemed very style conscious, which of course you’ll find all over Europe. It is so refreshing not to see people walking around in pajama pants or pants hanging below underwear, etc., like we constantly see in the U.S. David and I always try to dress appropriately and fit in when traveling so that we don’t look like the “ugly American tourists” we have run into all over the world. We have even been complimented by customs officials when re-entering the U.S.!
Some of the styles I particularly noticed over and over were:
- Skin tight jeans (white, black and all blues)
- Frayed / unhemed jeans
- Platform athletic shoes, booties and knee high boots and sleek loafers
- Short leather jackets paired with high waisted pants
- Puffy jackets, vests and coats
- Midi skirts and dresses
- Long wool sweaters/ dusters
- Big sunglasses & big scarves
- Unhemmed felted wool coats and jackets
- Backpacks of all sorts, but especially Herschel & Fjallraven
- Leopard print everything
On our last day in Ljubljana, we enjoyed our usual coffee spot on the colonnade by the Central Market. Then we went for our daily stroll about town and happened upon some live entertainment, police on horseback in regalia, traditional Slovenian Polka band, a jazz band, etc… all very entertaining. Even though we had eaten a late lunch of our new favorite pizza and a salad at Ljublianski Dvor early that afternoon, we decided to go back there for one last meal before packing up to depart for Croatia the next day. We enjoyed a caprese salad and a pasta dish with thin home made pasta, & pancetta in a cream sauce. Slastno! On our way back through Preseren Square, the lively center of the city, we happened upon an open air cafe/ bar where a group of about 30 people were singing an acapella medley. As we paused to listen we heard them singing Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen in English… with gusto… and they did a hair dance at the end.
They were fantastic! All the people around the square joined in. What a fun surprise on our last night! And, of course, after walking around the beautiful city at night, we had to have a night cap of gelato with chocolate & caramel sauces and salty peanuts on top. Mama Mia.. this is a great city.. We would definitely go back to Ljubljana, Slovenia!
Our Croatia visit was comprised of a 2 week stay in Zadar sandwiched between short re-visits of both Opatija and Zagreb. The GoOpti driver picked us up a couple of blocks from our apartment in Ljublijiana and we rode with another American couple to a car switch in Postonja. Our 2nd driver took us directly to our hotel in Opatija. Having a private driver was nice and this afforded David the opportunity to see the countryside since he wasn’t focused on driving.
Our hotel room in the Remisens Premium Hotel Kvarner was on the 2nd floor with a balcony overlooking the hotel grounds, pool, terrace, and wonderful views of the Adriatic. Our room was beautifully appointed and offered a comfortable king sized bed with lots of squishy pillows :). This was a welcome treat, as our bed in the apartment in Ljubljana was comfortable, but on a low to the floor wooden platform that I repeatedly hit my shin on.
Re-visiting places that we truly enjoyed in the past gives us the opportunity to be relaxed and not feel like we have to see and do everything. We also love testing our memory on locations of our favorite restaurants and points of interest from our previous visits. After settling in our room, we walked to the city center (just a couple blocks away) and purchased some local Cabernet Sauvignon and beers and snacks to have on hand while we enjoyed playing backgammon on the balcony. We usually take backgammon with us on our travels and have only lost one game over the last 36 years:). We researched restaurants online and located the one we had enjoyed 4 years ago, then had the hotel make a dinner reservation for us that night at Ruzmarin. It was still such a popular place, by locals and tourists, that you must have a reservation to dine there. Our first night we enjoyed shrimp bruschetta, mixed green salad, very thinly sliced rumpsteak, and boiled potatoes with arugula (a staple dish in this part of the world) and 2 glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. All this for 382 kunas – approximately $62! We also dined at Ruzmarin the next night, enjoying the best Beef Carpacio we’ve ever tasted!
The Kvarner has a wonderful spa, so we took advantage of a free visit to the sauna and steam baths. One of the reasons we came back to this hotel was for the most amazing breakfast buffet we’ve ever experienced, complete with champagne and cappuccino. Opatija was a renowned fashionable resort in the 19th century, dotted with Habsburg-era villas facing the ocean. The city is known for it’s clean air free from harmful allergens, smog or industrial dust, along with it’s locally – conditioned wind system, believed to be beneficial to all those who suffer from breathing difficulties.
After our visit in Opatija we took a bus to Zadar, which took about 5 hours. We enjoyed the scenery, read, and ate our picnic lunch enroute. This was much better than driving since the highway hugged the coastline the entire way with several hairpin curves, speed limit of only 40k/hr and really thrilling sky high bridges and cliffside narrow roads.
The apartment we rented for 2 weeks in the picturesque historical town of Zadar, was just the space we needed. It was well located, had been recently renovated and was reasonably priced. Zadar is a pedestrian friendly city. Automobiles are prohibited from most of the town, except in the morning hours for deliveries. Zadar is the oldest continuously inhabited city on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, and is known for the Roman and Venetian ruins of its peninsular Old Town. There are also several Venetian gates in the city walls. Surrounding the Roman-era Forum is 11th-century St. Mary’s Convent, with religious art dating to the 8th century. There’s also the grand, 12th-century St. Anastasia’s Cathedral and the round, 9th-century pre-Romanesque Church of St. Donatus that we could see out of our apartment window. The city proper covers an area of less than 10 square miles and has a population of about 75,000.
After settling in or apartment we found a nearby market for some supplies and checked TripAdvisor for restaurant recommendations. We found a highly recommended pizza restaurant within 200’ of our apartment, right where the Uber had dropped us earlier! Tri Bunara Pizzaria (Three Wells) offered a delicious version of our favorite pizza with prosciutto, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes covered in a heap of fresh arugula. Needless to say, we ate there several times.
Zadar ended up being the perfect place to live like locals. Our favorite past times were:
- enjoying a leisurely cup of cappuccino at Caffebar Lloyd’s outdoor tables while reading The Tennessean online and people watching;
- daily walks around the perimeter of the peninsula several times around and noticing something new each day,
- strolling the narrow streets of the city & peeking in shops and restaurants,
- daily naps,
- finding several restaurants, especially Restaurant Bruschetta, where we had amazing dinners,
- playing backgammon at the sea-side of the UNESCO World Heritage Roman Ruins,
- watching the sunsets (Alfred Hitchcock claimed the sunset visible from the Restaurant Tramonto on the seaside promenade to be the most beautiful sunset in the world),
- nightly visits to the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun,
- shopping at the fresh market for daily fruits and snacks,
- our day tip to the beautiful little town of Nin,
- wandering thru the Roman ruins and climbing the 180 stairs to the top of the bell tower at the Church of Saint Donatus which was built in the 9th century,
- and watching a couple of wedding processions thru the town, with the whole entourage singing in joy.
Most inhabitants of this small city appeared fashion conscious as well. It amazed me to watch the women in their beautiful high heels navigating the cobblestone and marble streets. If they weren’t dressed in current fashionable trends, they were wearing Addidas track suits… It was very curious to see so many men, women and children dressed in them.
We were such regulars at the Restaurant Bruschetta, that we became friends with one of the servers, Ivan. Ivan asked if he could prepare a surprise special feast for us on our last night and we of course said yes. When we arrived, we were served drinks and appetizers, then salad, then an amazing dish that was a tradition in his family and always prepared by his grandmother for special occasions… It was a large Scorpion fish in a stew of fresh vegetables and broth. David and I looked at each other and burst out laughing because the dish was HUGE! We looked at Ivan and exclaimed there would be no way we could eat it all, but it was so delicious, we did. And, of course, there was desert, after dinner drinks and coffee after that. Oh My! It was a quite a send off from Zadar Croatia.
We spent a couple days in Zagreb before flying back home. Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and feels like a big city, with a population of about 800,000. It too has a charming hill top Old Town accessible by walking or a taking the funicular. We stayed at Hotel Dubrovnik which we had visited 4 years ago, as it was so conveniently located in the middle of the city. We enjoyed revisiting the Old Town and just wandering. On our last night in Croatia we dined at a most interesting restaurant in a basement cave ~ Laterna na Dolcu .
When we arrived back in the U.S., we were able to skip the long lines in customs and proceed to a Global Entry kiosk to scan our passports since we had gotten the Global Entry approval in 2019…. However, we almost missed our connecting flight because I had foolishly purchased a bottle of Zadar’s famous cherry brandy in the duty free shop of the Zagreb airport and didn’t pack it in my suitcase to be checked. I will never, ever purchase anything liquid in a duty free shop again!
We are now researching our next locations for “living like locals.” . So, stay tuned. Who knows where these Peripatetic Hedonists will head to next!
Kipp on Traveling!